We’re looking at a grove of hop plants, waving slightly in the morning breeze. Each row, mounted on a wire trellis, stands ten feet high. Gazing out of the pickup truck driven by Eric March, foreman of Star B Ranch and Hop Farm, I’m thinking of a comparison but can’t quite come up with it, but Eric does: “Kind of like a kelp forest,” he says, “but above water.”
March is an affable, soft-spoken guy. When asked about his title at Star B, he referred to himself as the foreman, but then smiled and added, “I’m a son-in-law of the son-in-law.”
Behind that modest summary is a now four-generation family farming operation. It began in 1979 with Bert Boeckmann buying a little over 1,000 acres in the hills above Ramona, at first for livestock, seeking to produce a healthy, sustainably-raised product.
The extended family’s research led them to raising buffalo. Star B, now at 1,200 acres, has become nationally recognized for its top quality, grass fed bison meat.
In 2008, Eric and his wife Annie, observing the emergence of a craft beer scene in San Diego County, began to research opening a brewery at Star B. But they were told they couldn’t because the land in their particular area was zoned for agriculture. They decided to grow hops as a way to “keep our foot in the door,” March said.
Another impetus for local hop cultivation was a worldwide hop shortage in 2008. This resulted from a combination of bad weather, pests, and crop viruses in the world regions where most hops are produced. Those regions include Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and the Hallertau region of Bavaria in Germany.
Hops like “long summer days and cold nights, but not freezing cold,” March said.
The 45th and 46th parallels are the prime hop growing spots in the world. Those are the parallels along which the main regions in the United States and Germany are located. Star B planted its first hop crop in 2008. Their first harvest was in 2011. In San Diego, “it can take two to three years to get a full yield,” March said. “This is our eighth season commercially.”
They started out growing two hop varieties, Cascade and Nugget. Today, Star B’s three acres of hops encompass some 21 varieties, including Chinook, Crystal, and Mount Hood.
Hops are one of the primary ingredients in beer brewing, along with malted barley, yeast, and water.
“Hops contain many essential oils which contribute aroma, flavor, and bitterness to balance the sweetness of the malt,” according to Star B’s website.
Asked for some client preferences, March answered, “Cascade is the most used in the country [but] everybody likes Chinook. American hops are kind of known for being piney and citrusy robust flavors.”
The recognition of varying aroma and flavor contributions offered by different varieties of hops has spurred hop cultivation in what March calls “nontraditional areas,” like South Africa and San Diego. He has expanded his hop varieties to suit trends and climate. And his efforts have been successful.
“We’re the largest commercial hop farm in the county,” March said. He supplies hops to nine different breweries. “We had hops in 15 different beers last year.”
“We try to be as organic as we can be,” said March. The only nonorganic substances he uses are nutrient and micronutrient fertilizers. He explained that “hops are perennial underground, growing very fast and large in a short time. That can cause extreme soil depletion, which organic fertilizers are still too weak to remedy and too cost-intensive to replenish,” said March. “I am hoping to rebuild a more organically fertile soil over time, but I need to supplement with something stronger until then."
Star B harvested about 1,000 pounds of hops in 2016. March said that’s about one-tenth of what the northern producers grow. But they have much more acreage and utilize more factory farm-type methods.
Pointing to his grove, he noted, “We grow on 10-foot trellises. The big firms use 20 or 25 feet, but they have specialized tractors to harvest them. We don’t use those.”
A few years ago Star B invested in a large German hop harvesting machine. “Hop harvesting is very labor-intensive,” March said, which can be tedious, time-consuming and expensive. He noted that The Wolf Hop Harvester was designed for and used by smaller-scale operators in Germany.
March also said the United States Hop Growers Association, to which Star B belongs, has begun electing “members-at-large for a small growers council.”
“It’s nice now because a smaller-scale support system is developing,” he said, citing the creation of specialized baling machines as another example.
With this kind of a support network, March and Star B can concentrate on passing what he calls the ultimate test for a hop: “If it grows and it makes good beer.”
The winter rains brought needed drought relief which has March optimistic about this year’s crop.
“I’m hoping to double, triple or quadruple my yields this year,” he said, adding, “If I can, I may reach a point where I’m half as productive as up north.” By “up north” March is primarily referring to the growers in the Pacific Northwest. Those growers have the climatic advantage and also larger acreage going for them. At the same time, he says that region’s climate is more prone to “fungal development and insect pests,” which can require increased use of nonorganic chemicals. So, while he’s not yet to their level of productivity, with his reduced usage of nonorganic chemicals, “it’s almost even.”